5 dumb things backpack designers need to stop doing

As many of you may know, I am an endless complaining machine that cannot be satisfied even by the most magnificent of creations anywhere to be found. This debilitating curse manifests itself most thoroughly when it comes to high-tech travel gear, much of which is cartoonishly ruined by moronic designers who seem to have absolutely no idea that even the smallest of modifications could vastly improve their creations by several orders of magnitude.

I have no earthly idea how they’re able to screw things up so frequently, and many a strongly-worded-letter has departed from my desk, only to be cursorily answered or summarily ignored by the willfully foolish recipients whose job descriptions apparently do not include “making things not suck.”

So I’ll just complain here instead.

Hobos with a bindle
My new pack.

Backpack manufacturers make a massive variety of packs, churning out the designs every single year, with a billion different sizes, colors, configurations, and everything else. You’d think they’d provide enough variety to satiate the needs of even the most discerning of pack enthusiasts. But nay. Somehow they still manage to screw things up all over the place.

Now I’ll readily admit that in many cases, my subjective needs are not universally ideal; travel-specific packs require a somewhat different set of features compared to hiking packs, and the comparative rarity of travel packs means I quite often have to make do with a hiking pack, which is a bit like giving dog food to a crocodile. He’ll eat it, sure, but it’s still dumb.

But they’re not getting away so easily. Nay! I am here to complain, and complain I shall.

The following problems consist exclusively of design flaws that are not subjectively unsuitable for my purposes, but are just objectively stupid. They’re wrong. Plain and simple. And people need to stop doing them.

Let’s begin.

Backpack design flaws that need to stop immediately

1. Stupidly tiny “water bottle” pockets

I have absolutely no idea how this trend started. I think it has something to do with the popularity of hydration bladders, and backpack manufacturers figured that’s all they had to worry about. If everybody just has a hydration bladder, they won’t be storing a water bottle in a side pocket.

But not everybody has a hydration bladder. In fact I’d be willing to bet that more people have water bottles than hydration bladders, and they need a place to put them goddammit. Where the hell can they go besides the damn side pocket?!?! Not in the main compartment of the pack, surely. Not only is it a stupid hassle to take it out whenever you need a sip of water, but if there’s a leak of any kind, all of a sudden your day is ruined.

But I see backpacks all over the place…seemingly the majority of them…that have extraordinarily small side pockets with no ability to expand whatsoever. Which means they’ll be flat against the wall of the pack itself with a round water bottle trying to find its way inside! You’re literally stuck trying to fit a round object into a flat compartment. Do they even bother trying to fit any of those bottles that are sold in the same stores into the side pockets before shipping the product out the door?!?!

But they even issue promotional photos displaying a water bottle fitting into the pocket. Quite often the pack itself is only partially filled, meaning the water bottle dug into the empty space of the main compartment, meaning if the bag were full, you’d be out of luck.

And it’s not like they can’t handle solving this problem. It’s actually stupidly easy. All they have to do is:

  • Use stretchy fabric
  • Fold the fabric

In fact you only really need to do one or the other. In either case, the fabric will lay flat when the pocket is empty, and pop open when you stuff a water bottle inside. It’s literally that simple. And even if you don’t need to fit a water bottle in there, it’s still objectively superior anyway.


Backpack side pockets
It’s like magic!!!

I will never stop complaining about this, because it’s the most annoying thing in the world to me. I shouldn’t have to figure water bottle location into pack purchase decision making. They should just all be good.

2. Compression straps that cover the side pockets

So it’s one thing to make a side pocket so stupidly small that you can’t use it. But it’s another thing entirely to have a perfectly good pocket and lash something right over the top.

They’re called “compression” straps, and you have to pull them tightly to compress the pack. And you know what happens when you pull a strap tightly over a pocket? You can’t use the pocket anymore. You literally have to decide whether you’re going to use the pocket, or the strap, but not both. Or at least, not very well. The strap won’t be doing much in the way of compression if it’s loose enough to access the pocket itself, and thus is pointless.

The worst offense is when not one but two straps go right over the side pocket. On packs so small that they don’t need the double strap anyway!

In some cases, these straps can actually be routed behind the side pocket, so they won’t get in the way of things. But the fact that certain companies allow this option only on some of their packs is incredibly annoying. It’s also not even the best way to solve the problem.

Once again, a variety of solutions exist. Here’s the easiest one:

Side pocket compression straps
You can just SEE the silliness.

You can cut them off, but why don’t they just not do stupid things to begin with?!?!

3. Filthy dirty lie “panel” loading

This is mainly a vocabulary problem. Allow me to elaborate:

Backpacks come in a few varieties: Top loaders, which consist of giant cylindrical main compartments with a lid on the top; and panel loaders, which have a large, horseshoe-shaped zipper which allows the entire pack to be opened up like a suitcase.

Except when they fail to make the zipper go all the way to the bottom of the pack and you can only open it halfway. Plus, they’ll put the zipper in the middle of the pack, rather than at the edge, making it even more difficult to open completely.

Which means it’s not a panel goddammit. Check the damn dictionary!

Now I’ll admit that in some cases the half-panel loaders (that’s what I’m calling them) have their merits. School, for example. When you want to flip through a few books, all of which are balanced vertically, you’d want to open the pack from the top and flip through the options and take your pick. This works better than a full-length panel loader, which you’d sort of need to place flat on the ground to see what’s inside, and even then, you’d probably only be able to see one book at a time, unless you arranged them differently than anyone in the world ever has.

But it’s a terrible way to organize anything else. If you’ve ever had a sock at the bottom of the pack, you need to unload the whole damn thing to find it. And this is the weakness of half-panel loaders. They are by far the most difficult type to fill to capacity. And once you’ve packed them nearly full, it’s incredibly difficult to access anything at all.

It’s not to say they’re bad, but they’re horrible in certain cases. Travel, for example. And regardless, they certainly shouldn’t be called “panel” loaders.

Panel loading explanation.
Dome loaders? I don’t know.

Again, half-panel loaders have their merits, but when I say I want a panel loader, I mean a real one.

And there’s a very clever hybrid solution found in the Kelty Redwing, which combines top loading with panel loading into a single zipper. Unfortunately, it was one of the most horrifically uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced.

4. “Bridge” shoulder strap

Bridge shoulder strap
A bridge too far. From sanity.

I have no idea who thought up this incredibly stupid idea. I bet it went something like this:

“Hey guys! Let’s change something that’s been working perfectly for decades!”

“Um, why?”

“Because fuck you, that’s why!”

I’m referring to the so-called “haul loop” found at the top of the pack. You can use it to pick up the bag, hang it on something, or whatever. And a few companies have started making bags where the haul loop is integrated into the shoulder straps, forming a bridge between them.

This is a terrible idea. I mean really awful. It means you cannot adjust the pack to fit high up on your back. You are required to carry it lower on your back than you otherwise could, meaning if you like wearing it up high, you’re stuck with something digging into the back of your neck all day.

I’m pretty sure the designers consisted of incredibly large people who wear their packs low and never bothered checking with anyone else.

Oh, and the haul loop is smaller and thus harder to grab, and it’s vertically positioned rather than horizontally, so it’ll dig into your fingers more. Hooray!

Bridge shoulder strap
I really want someone to explain the thought process behind this one. I am really oblivious.

Seriously, how did no one say anything?

5. Centrally-placed vertical zipper

Okay, I know this one is kind of a reach, because it’s somewhat obscure. But it’s also dumb.

I’ve only seen this in a few places, and I think it’s supposed to be for maps, which are (usually) vertical pamphlets that can be slipped inside flat pockets with tall zippers. But tall, centrally-located vertical zippers are just incredibly stupid.

Firstly, it’s hard to put small things in there. It’s practically impossible seeing inside while trying to find them, and they might even fall out. And secondly, it’s also difficult putting large things in there. It seems like a decent place for a rain jacket, but the process consists of stuffing the jacket into the left half of the compartment, and then stuffing the rest into the right half. You literally cannot access the entire pocket all at once, because it’s just this tiny slit that’s somehow supposed to provide access to this massive pocket.

I had this sort of zipper on an old pack of mine, and I literally did not use the pocket. Ever. It just sat uselessly. It’s so difficult trying to take things in and out that I just didn’t bother anymore.

Vertical zipper
Was that so hard?

I really don’t get this one either. If you’re supposed to fit tall, flat papers into there, it would still work better to put the zipper literally anywhere else. Horizontally across the top, or vertically along the side. But, best of all, upside-down letter U. Done and done.

Backpack design error objective vs. subjective

Now I’ll readily admit that my particular needs may not be the same as those of someone else. But in the cases listed above, with the exception of the panel-loader vocabulary problem, the design choices are just objectively wrong. And, annoyingly, they are incredibly frequent. I really have no idea why they continue to exist.

I wonder if it’s simply that most people are more or less fine with a pack as long as it’s good, and they’ll live with the limitations as long as it holds up to serious use. I’d feel that way as well, but when I see design flaws, especially incredibly dumb ones, it just ruins my whole day.

A few more:

  • Backpack manufacturers have apparently not realized that the load lifter straps (the small strap on top of the shoulder strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body) can be routed quite conveniently into hydration bladder port straps. Pretty much ever pack has a tiny strap, on the shoulder strap, where a hydration bladder hose is held in place. It’s also a great place to stick the load lifter straps so they don’t flail around annoyingly. The reason I think pack manufacturers haven’t realized this is that sometimes they’ll only put a strap on one side, instead of both.
  • You know those hip stabilizer straps? Basically, it’s the small strap, on top of the hip strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body. It also forms a dangly thing that, if you have dual hip belt pockets with a slot where the dangly strap can go, can be kept out of the way. Once again, I don’t think pack manufacturers have quite realized this, because many of them give you only one hip belt pocket and the strap on the other side dangles annoyingly.
  • When the base is rounded instead of flat, the pack falls over whenever you set it down. It’s incredibly annoying.
  • If you have a top loader pack whose lid pocket attaches to a strap whose only connection point to the pack itself is at the very bottom of the pack, every time you unclip the buckle to open the pack, the strap will fall all the way to the ground. There could be something to prevent this, and it would be incredibly easy. I used dental floss. I’m sure they could do something a little more clever.

And you’ll notice that in many of the pictures shown above, the “bad” pack was an Osprey pack. And there’s a reason for that. Osprey make a million different packs, and plenty of people are happy with plenty of them, but…if I want to find a pack that’ll annoy the hell out of me, I know exactly where to go. Osprey is the absolute biggest culprit of tiny side pockets, and straps covering the side pocket anyway. Among other things.

I intend to continue complaining about these problems until I become such a thorn in the side of these companies that they are forced to acquiesce to my demands. Wish me luck!

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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150 Comments on “5 dumb things backpack designers need to stop doing”

  1. Good luck. You should try army surplus stores for your packs though, they often have ridiculously good stuff. They also have some travel gear that occasionally weighs less than any other type of stuff just because soldiers are the only group of people payed to run long distances with backpacks on. They also have to be able to look presentable while still having functional clothes. So, check out some army surplus stores when you get the opportunity. Again, best of luck.

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen some good gear at places like that. Ironically it used to be the other way around, because the consumer industry overtook the “it’s been that way forever” military traditions. I remember reading about an officer using a tent that was inferior to the tent he could get at a camping store, and he pushed to get it changed.

      1. British army standard issue Bergens (Norwegian brand) were so uncomfortable, it became standard to upgrade to a commercial pack like Berghause – which is where their Vulcan and Cyclops range came from. Lots currently use Lowe Alpine Salient packs. But whatever pack they use, they still get called ‘Bergen’.

  2. Thank you for this blog.
    I found it trying to find what I thought would be an easy task, I want a travel backpack, panel opening, nice water bottle pockets, few convient outside pockets, nope, haven’t found one yet.
    Every bag I looked at had the flaws you brought up.
    You have the same rantings I do about these things.

    One of my earlier searches was trying to find a simple messanger bag for day trips.

    I went through the same screaming rant “Who designs this shit” over and over.

    The water bottle pocket struck a particularly raw nerve.
    A messanger bag has two perfectly flat sides,
    stick a damn large water bottle pocket on either side!!

    I think they are designed for looks, most of the ones I see every day in DC are obviously empty, laying fashionably flat against the backs of the wearer.

    Good luck in your search, and never stop being a complainer.

    1. I love when my complaints lead to solutions, and thus they make the world a better place. I have some backpack recommendations here, though. They’re all a bit different, but something there might work.

  3. Hey brother. Here’s something that drives me crazy: the disappearance of EXTERNAL SIDE ZIPPER POUCHES! I have an old Jack Wolfskin daypack that has an external zip pouch on both sides. This bag has been everywhere with me, so granted it’s the language I speak. It’s time to retire the old bag, however, but finding a worthy replacement is proving difficult.

    What’s with all of the external side pouchless bags out there? Why do todays bags all look like technicolor tampons? I don’t want a single tubular/cylindrical backpack which makes it nearly impossible to pack efficiently and according to priorities! I need a highly versatile daypack-one that gives me options.

    Can you help me find a bag that looks somewhat like the NORTHFACE TRAPPIST (the only new bag Ive found that may meet my needs) in design? Thanks man!


    1. Those side compartments sure were useful, weren’t they? I don’t know where they’ve gone, or why.

      I don’t know of anything that looks quite like the Trappist, but if you really want to go for the traditional look, Tom Bihn makes the Guide’s Pack, which uses old aesthetics, but updated materials, and has optional clip-on zippered side compartments. They also make the Smart Alec, which doesn’t have “external” zippered compartments, but its side compartments zip shut, and it’s still quite svelte.

      Kelty seems to be carrying the torch of zippered side compartments, and their Redwing and Flyway packs have them, but they felt horrifically uncomfortable to me. Other people love them, but I think they’re insane. That’s all I can think of at the moment. Side zippered pockets seem to be a rare commodity.

    2. I couldn’t agree more. The designers of backpacks today are no longer experienced users of backpacks and are concerned more with fashion aesthetic than utility. Osprey and Northface don’t care about serious backpackers and climbers. They care about selling bookbags in shopping malls. The lack of external pockets is particularly egregious.

      I just returned from a technical climb to the summit of the Grand Teton and am absolutely disgusted with my new pack after experiencing the clumsiness of having to stop, remove my pack and enter through the top for sunglasses, gloves, harness, crampons, etc. I’m even more disgusted that after throwing it away upon my return, I can’t find a 50L pack with pockets anywhere on the internet.

      Let’s hope this is a passing fad, or that some smart group of real outdoor enthusiasts start their own company and put the other fools out of business.

      1. I don’t know for sure, but I can think of a few reasons to explain the shift away from many little pockets all over the outside of a bag.
        1. Security. For backpacking travelers in particular, theft can be an issue. When moving through cities or crowded squares/plazas, it’s not possible to keep tabs on a multiple exterior pockets. And for all types of backpackers, more pockets to zip up means more pockets to forget to zip up, or to zip up only partially. And then there are lost objects.

        2. Bulk. Streamlined packs are helpful for travelers (consider the narrower airplane aisles and stowaway space, public transit). They are also better when you’re climbing, bushwacking, and traveling two abreast. Getting snagged — or bumping into stuff and other people with ones crammed pockets — can be dangerous.

        3. Weight. Zippers and pockets add weight.

        4. Sizing Standards: It’s risky to add extra external pockets because people are using all kinds of products that are not standard issue. If a pocket is too small, people will complain and not use it. If it’s not tall enough or wide enough or deep enough for what they wanted to use them for, people will complain and not use them. This is why we have all these companies producing small storage bags in 80 million sizes, weights, and configurations.

        My Stratos/Sirrus 36 has two very good sized pockets on the (non removable) top, two small hip pockets (people complain they’re too small for a lot of phone cameras — and that’s true), and the rain-sleeve pocket. I put my sunglasses in the top pockets, along with 20 other things, like my first aid kit, bars, etc. I keep a pair of camp sandals in my rain sleeve pocket.

        1. This is definitely true, and it’s part of the reason I like those school backpack organizer panels; it’s just one “pocket,” in terms of having a zipper that opens up, but inside you get a dozen or so tiny compartments of all different sizes. It saves you having to pack another little organizer bag for pens, pencils, multi-tools, business cards, or things like that.

  4. So as an outdoor minded pack addict, I figured I’d rebut a few of your arguments.

    1. Yeah, ok. I hate that too. All I can think of is people wanting to look like badass mountain guides who don’t like things flapping around so they can get caught. Either make no water bottle holders or useful ones.

    2. If you can get a bottle in there, now you can cinch it down. Useful when you’re at risk of dropping things several thousand feet to a place where they will not likely be retrieved. Or on your partner’s head.

    3. Spot on. Worst of both worlds.

    4. Again, spot on, although not something I’d expect to encounter in a decent pack.

    5. Jackets go in this pocket. So does other stuff that you don’t want to fall out when you get the jacket. Very useful, especially if they’re stretchy. Also zippers in the centre are much less likely to get caught on things, which may seem trivial but is a massive consideration in my world. Zippers are also heavier than fabric, ergo less zipper = less weight.

    Anyway, cool site. I like it.

    1. 2. I think that if the pocket is tall enough and the elastic tight enough, it fulfills the purpose of tightening a strap over the bottle. I think a strap can be useful for really tall things, like a tripod, or something else that sticks way over the top of the pocket, but in that case, the strap needs to be up much higher than the pocket, and thus not in the way of the pocket anyway.

      5. I still can’t see how an upside-down U-shaped zipper wouldn’t be vastly superior in every way…

      But oh well. On the one hand I could just not buy any of them, but on the other hand, sometimes complaining is the only way to change things.

    2. Your rants crack me up and thanks to your site today I finally managed to buy a pair of technical jeans (Rohan venture) and a shirt that I can use everyday without looking as if I’m going to climb a mountain!

      Regarding the Osprey Talon packs: I have 4 of them and the side pockets are made using some stretchable material so they do expand some. The compression straps can be made go through inside the pockets too. I’m not sure how well they would hold water bottles though: I have to admit I’m sort of a bladder maniac and the fact that they had a dedicated bladder compartment accessible without opening the pack is what sold me to buy them! Those packs do have some design issues though, from the chest strap to the waist belt pockets! Details aside, you made a lot good points!

      1. I love that hydration bladder pocket, and I wish everyone would do that whenever possible. And it’s not like there’s anything wrong with hydration bladders, but argh…water bottles are useful too!

  5. Hi, first of all, I really like your blog. I agree with some of your pack problems and I have one of my own I would like to add: too many extra pockets. Instead of making a pack with 12 pockets which can hardly fit anything, why not have a couple big pockets and you dry bags (or something similar) to organise everything. Which I found in my osprey pack I now own. This leads me on to my second point I have an osprey pack and it only falls foul of one thing on your list, panel loading. It does have compression straps with go over the wand pockets, but cleverly osprey designed the straps so they can be rerouted to go inside the pockets, allowing the pockets to be used effectively. However, I do agree with your list of problems, just I disagree with the hatred towards osprey.
    But you have an awesome website and I love the travel tips.

    1. I definitely see your point; it’s not that I dislike everything they do, it’s just that they are the ones who most often do these sorts of things. But they make so many packs that you can avoid those problems, so it’s not so bad. Thanks for reading!

  6. I found this blog wondering if I was the only one desperate for large side pockets. I just sent an email to a manufacturer about a nice pack but it has those tiy pockets again. Even in the picture on their website, the bottle is halfway out with the fabric stretched tight. You can tell it’s gonna fall during a hike.

    Some small manufacturers have decent side pockets. I have a Gossamer Gear Mariposa. It has two large pockets on one side and one that runs the entire height of the pack on the other side, and a large mesh pocket in front. The water bottle pocket can take a Nalgene bottle inside an insulated sleeve without a hitch.

    1. Sometimes I feel like I’m being a bit too harsh, because they have pockets that are just good enough…if the pack is upright the whole time, not too full, and you have a relatively small water bottle. But I was in a store and testing out a pack, so I filled it up, then tried to put a water bottle in the side…and I just couldn’t. At all. It’s just such an easy problem to fix, so I don’t feel too bad being vocal about it.

  7. I do agree with you on a few points such as the straight front zipper and the strap bridge but I love and will always love the half folding panel backpacks I hate the black hole backpacks (the top loading ones where you stuff everything into the bag from the top) I hate the side zippers where you can unzip from the side of your pack and pull something out without taking your backpack off if you accidently take more than what you wanted out you are still going to have to take off your backpack and put the times back in. If you are looking for super lightweight backpacks and don’t need the chest/waist strap or any padding (I have a severe dislike for either) do what I have done buy from eBay I got one backpack that I like because it had a strap on the outside where I could attach things to but then realized I had no pockets to hold my smaller items just one un-zippered pocket to hold a jacket and one main one so I have bought another different one with more pockets but no strap on the front to hold any extra gear (sad but I like the style meaning more pockets) anyways it’s a folding backpack and supposed to be waterproof (I haven’t tested the waterproof ones I have yet) a lot of these folding/foldable backpacks come from China (sorry Made in USA lovers) and with free shipping they come in a variety of styles and colors and can fold to fit into your luggage or purse.

    1. With smaller backpacks, those half-panel openings are just fine. But I’ve seen them on packs up to 40 liters, and they were the only way to open it up, and just…argh. They work fine for smaller ones, though, and it’s sometimes nice when they have 2 of those instead of 1, so you can at least split things up, and under-fill the pack without it slumping all over.

  8. I agree with you on the strap bridge/loops and the front zipper (straight up and down zipper is stupid) I also hate zippers on the side of the packs but I do and will always love the half loading packs the black hole packs (top loaders I hate) I did buy one backpack for when I was supposed to go on a trip to use as a hiking backpack but the trip was cancelled anyways I figured it would be a good backpack but then realized there were no pockets other than the one for my jacket and the main one I had no place to put my smaller items and I didn’t want to buy a ton of pouches so I bought a new one which should be coming soon all my backpacks have come from eBay (mostly China sorry Made In USA lovers) each cost under $20 with free shipping if you want lightweight go the route I took buy a folding/foldable backpack some come with chest straps otherwise they don’t come with chest/waist straps or padding but they fold into it’s own pouch and they can fit into luggage/purse/carry-on they come in a variety of styles/colors/sizes so you might find one you like the ones I bought are supposed to be water proof I don’t know though I have tested it out yet the prices range from under $10 to close to $60 or more so compare prices 2 similar backpacks sold by different sellers will have varying price/shipping ranges so far the folding backpacks I have loved as I have a severe hate for chest/waist straps and padding.

    1. Riley – You make some good points but it would be so much easier to read if you used punctuation. Just sayin. Thanks

  9. There’s got to be a better design than a top loader. It’s basically a large bag. Seriously. I’m paying how much and the best you can do is…a bag? Throw everything in and let it all swim together in chaos.
    Cut the bottom of the bag off and put some straps there to secure your sleeping bag. There’s no reason to have it sitting at the bottom of a large bag; unless you are punishing it…maybe.
    Make the largest enclosed area in the middle, just above your sleeping bag. Add a few other compartments.
    The idea is that you don’t have to dig through a ton of things you don’t need to get a water bottle(no I don’t have a hydration bladder) or some food out. Nor do you have to empty half your pack to get to something large that’s halfway down in the bag of chaos. Just open the compartment it’s in and get it. No need to disturb anything else.

  10. Another: hydration packs have been standard for so long that a pack with a sleeve and no port is NOT a simple design oversight. It’s BS. I shouldn’t have to route the tube out a zipper or drawstring closure. Combine this with the ridiculously tiny side pockets (not even called water bottle pockets any more) and a big failure of pack design.

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